I read this poem (quoted in full below) at the end of a podcast last year. It says something very imaginative, yet very obvious, about the human condition.

In the television adaptation of The Elegant Universe that author Brian Greene did for Nova1, he takes a couple of minutes to make another version of the same very good point: You can’t teach physics to a dog.

The implication is this: we have no way of knowing that we as humans are capable of understanding the universe. We can make advances in physics that do a good job of predicting outcomes, but it’s still entirely possible — likely, even — that the line marking the limits of our mental ability still falls far short of the distance needed to fully understand the workings of the world.2

The poem Fishes’ Heaven illustrates the spiritual side of the same question. It’s a delightful joke on everyone: on materialists, because there is a reality outside the pond, and on the religious, because their vision of the Beyond is so thin and mimsy-simple that it bears no resemblance to the real thing.

This is a concept of Humility for which both materialists and Christians ought to feel a deep affinity.

I believe the Bible to be true as far as it goes, but the Bible itself, besides telling us very little about either heaven or physics, tells us that we now “see through a glass darkly,” and that ultimately our present knowledge, mystic experience, and revelation will all fail, and only Love will remain. An honest reading of the Bible itself also doesn’t give us any assurance that we can reach anything close to a complete picture of God, heaven, or even this world, by a thorough study of Biblical texts; on the contrary, it tells us that these things are vastly beyond our ability to comprehend.

Someone at church informed me that they found parts of my book to be “unbiblical” in some way. I fully understand why some people might think that, but on reflection I cannot admit the charge. Rather, I think that such a person may be confusing inferences with truth, and placing the possible limit of their own knowledge much further than it can really extend. Noise of Creation is (in part, at least) an imagination of things that have, in fact, been left to our imagination, even assuming the Bible to be your sole frame of reference.

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June, Dawdling away their wat’ry noon) Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear, Each secret fishy hope or fear. Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond; But is there anything Beyond? This life cannot be All, they swear, For how unpleasant, if it were! One may not doubt that, somehow, Good Shall come of Water and of Mud; And, sure, the reverent eye must see A Purpose in Liquidity. We darkly know, by Faith we cry, The future is not Wholly Dry. Mud unto mud! — Death eddies near — Not here the appointed End, not here! But somewhere, beyond Space and Time. Is wetter water, slimier slime! And there (they trust) there swimmeth One Who swam ere rivers were begun, Immense, of fishy form and mind, Squamous, omnipotent, and kind; And under that Almighty Fin, The littlest fish may enter in. Oh! never fly conceals a hook, Fish say, in the Eternal Brook, But more than mundane weeds are there, And mud, celestially fair; Fat caterpillars drift around, And Paradisal grubs are found; Unfading moths, immortal flies, And the worm that never dies. And in that Heaven of all their wish, There shall be no more land, say fish. — Fishes’ Heaven by Rupert Brooke

  1. The TV version was not very well done, overall; I only refer to it here because this particular concept was more succinctly illustrated on Nova than it would be if I quoted the book

  2. I of course do not mean to imply that we shouldn’t keep trying to extend our understanding of it.